It was a terrible night in February 188–.
A violent storm from the north-west was raging along the northern coast of Java. The wind howled and roared as though a legion of fiends were holding Sabbath in the black mass of clouds which were driving along.
The waves of the Java sea were running mountain high, and came curling into the beach in monstrous billows topped with mighty crests of dazzling foam. These crests were brightly phosphorescent, and each breaker, as it came rolling in, for an instant shed a pale fantastic shower of sparks upon the black seething waters, leaving, the next instant, the blackness darker than before. The sea-coast on which our story opens formed here, as in so many other places in Java, an extensive marsh, the slimy clay of which the influence of the tropical sun had clothed with a most curious kind of vegetation.
Had it been day, the eye, as far as it could reach, would have rested upon thousands upon thousands of tree-tops, closely packed together, and rising about thirty feet from the soil. The stems of these trees did not reach the ground, but rested on knotty roots, which, like arches, grew out of the earth. These roots were divided, branching out in all directions, so that the trees might be likened to many-footed creatures, the supports or legs of each of which crossed and recrossed with those of its neighbour. Thus looking along the ground might be seen a kind of tangled network under a thick canopy of green, and that network again was entwined with gigantic creepers, hanging in festoons from the singular archways and climbing upwards into the tops of the trees.
By daylight, between those myriads of twisted roots forming, as it were, a gigantic labyrinth, there might have been seen a swarming mass of living things, unsightly and loathsome, which would have filled the beholder with wonder and disgust.
There, among thousands of other living beings, lay the sluggish alligator glaring at its prey with fixed and stony eye. There countless tortoises and “Mimis” were crawling and darting about in quest of food. There swarmed monstrous crabs and shrimps of all kinds, varying in size from that of the largest lobster to the almost microscopical sea-spider. All these in millions were wriggling in the filthy ooze which was formed of the detritus of this singular mangrove forest. In the mud which clung about the roots, these hideous creatures lived and teemed, not perhaps in a state of perfect concord, yet maintaining an armed kind of peace which did not prevent them from becoming allies whenever some unhappy victim, whose luckless star had cast upon that shore, had to be overpowered.
Close by the narrow strip of land, where, not only in storms but in all weathers, land and water seemed to strive for the mastery, there stood a small hut hidden away completely among a clump of “Saoe” trees. These trees grew there, the only ones of their kind amidst the gloomy forest of mangrove.
Surrounded by the dense foliage as by an impenetrable wall, the hut was completely invisible from the land. On the other side it commanded a wide view of the sea; but even there it was screened from observation by its position among the leaves.
We called it a hut,—it was, indeed, little more than a large sentry box, and it, most appropriately, bore the name of “djaga monjet” or monkey-perch. It was put together in a very primitive fashion, and was covered with “Kadjang” mats and “attaps,” both of these rough building materials obtained from the Nipah palm.
The “djaga monjet” was built in the morass on piles which raised it some considerable distance from the ground. Thus the waves which now and then threatened to swallow up the fore-shore altogether, could freely wash about under it, and break and divide against the firmly driven stakes. The trunk of a tree, with some rough steps clumsily cut into it, served as a ladder and gave access to the hut which, at the time this tale begins, was wrapped in the deepest darkness, but which yet was not tenantless.
Two voices might have been heard issuing from the doorway. The speakers fancied they were talking in a confidential whisper; but the blustering of the storm had gradually led them on to raise their voices, so that now they were yelling at each other rather than conversing.
That, however, was of very little consequence. At such an hour, and in such fearful weather, no human being would have dreamed of prowling about there. The most zealous coastguard’s man would have declined that duty.
The men in the hut were talking in Malay, but they might, without difficulty, have been recognised for Chinamen. Their guttural pronunciation, the difficulty with which they sounded the letter “r,” which with them indeed was spoken as “l,” and a certain lisping, weakly, altogether most unpleasant accent, put the matter beyond doubt.
Yes, they were two Chinamen who, sitting in that little watch-house, were eagerly, in the pitch dark night, scanning the angry sea before them.
“No,” said one of them, after a considerable interval of silence—“No, there is nothing whatever to be seen. In such weather, it would be simply tempting fate. You may be quite sure that the Kiem Ping Hin is snugly lying at anchor at Poeloe Karabab. She would never think of starting in such a storm.”
“You may be right,” replied the other, “but the master’s orders were most positive. We are posted here on purpose to help the men of the Kiem Ping Hin to get their cargo safe ashore.”
“That is true enough, Than Khan, and we shall get our pay, I daresay; but, for all that, you cannot deny that she cannot possibly come in to-night. Just hark how the wind howls, hear how the breakers roar—our perch is shaking like a reed. How would you like to be out on such a night as this?”
“I,” cried Than Khan, “not for all the money in the world. But still we know the old Arab Awal Boep Said—he is a tough old sea-dog, and no weather will—”
“Look out!” cried the other; “there, just there! You see that big curling wave yonder! Look, you can just see it by the light of the foam. Yes, by Kong! A ‘djoekoeng!’ ”
“You are right, Liem King,” replied Than Khan, “it is a ‘djoekoeng’ ” (a boat made of a hollowed tree-stem). “There were two persons in her, both Javanese—I fancied a man and a woman.”